Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Music, 1880 or So

Let's try something new - this Friday's musical post is devoted to one song, Television's 1880 or So.

I have fallen hopelessly in love with this song. For a long time I couldn't find it anywhere - I saw it on YouTube somewhere a couple years ago, and after that looked for it on records, but none of the records it is on showed up for sale, so I had to make do with occasionally watching the video. But - the last time I did that, it occurred to me to try iTunes - lots of stuff has been turning up there - and sure enough, there it was - a live version, Live at the Academy NYC 12.4.92. A glorious rendition of the song. (And a heck of a record too.)

But I'm hung up on 1880 or So. It's classic Television - pretty melody (deriving I suppose like much of the best American music of the last 40 years from the pretty Velvet Underground songs), with tight interlocking guitars and a throbbing motorik beat, Verlaine drawling the words, the two guitarists taking solo turns. Lloyd goes first - tight and fast, dense, a bit showy, with that gorgeous twangy stratocaster tone - Verlaine haunting the solo, keeping time, and starting to slip out of its shadows as Lloyd winds down... But first there's another verse - and it's Verlaine's turn. He plays a different kind of solo - one of the secrets to their sound, right? the way Loyd's style varies from Verlaines, complimenting each other... So Verlaine's solo is slower, spacier, built around simpler patterns, bending notes and tones, playing closer to the beats - staccato notes, and a way of slicing up the rhythms, speeding up, slowing down - the oft noted debt to 60s jazz, Coltrane and Dolphy, their way of making the rhythms of their solos as important as the notes. Verlaine, particularly, reminds me of Monk - solos that aren't hurried or forces, notes placed with precision, both as notes and as beats. Wandering the internet I found this review (at this site, devoted to the band) - I refer you here to the"two guys who can play rhythm guitar" line - that's another of their powers - the ease with which they slip from lead to rhythm. They never get lost, even when they are shredding - and they play around the beats, with it, against it, cutting it up, stretching it out, making the guitar lines percussive things, no matter how lovely the melodic and harmonic ideas may be.

Songs like this (1880 or So, Marquee Moon, etc.) put me in mind of Richard Thompson - I don't know if they were trying to play like him, but they sound like him. The clean guitar tones, and especially the way they build solos, always burrowing into the rhythms, always sliding the tone around, always surprising. Verlaine maybe more than Lloyd - Lloyd is great, but less surprising, more conventional - Verlaine, though, is mind boggling - his control over the machine, getting such a carefully controlled range of sound out of it, his mastery of time, his ability to make every sound beautiful. When they are right, there is almost nothing better. Maybe, maybe, there are bands that got it right more often, but we can leave them for another day.

Finally - like any great live band - always sounding different... take this version, from about the same time as the Later version above - the structure is the same, but the actual breaks are different - Lloyd, I think, a little more aggressive (than on the TV show, if not the record) - then Verlaine playing a much more minimal solo, manipulating the tone almost as much as playing - milking that beautiful guitar sound for itself....

Or this, from 2005 - a long intro, lovely twangy Lloyd solo that really lets fly, then a very minimal, but lovely, finale by Verlaine...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Le Quattro Volte

Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is the third great film I have seen this month. (After Certified Copy and Uncle Bonmee...) It is a simple seeming film, a beautifully shot meditation on the landscape of southern Italy and some of the people and animals living there. It's divided into four parts, following first a goatherd and his goats; then a new born kid; then a tree, which is cut down and used for a festival; finally, the same tree being used to build a kiln for making charcoal. All four segments are about death - and transformation - man to animal, animal to plant, plant to mineral (as Frammartino puts it in this interview). Reincarnation - or resurrection - and I'd say it is a very fine film to watch on Easter weekend. (Being itself set, in part, at Easter...) It is, throughout, slow, quiet, patient, beautifully shot, and - like the other two great films - gorgeous sounding. A good part of what I said about the sound design of Certified Copy is true here - Frammartino immerses us in the world of this film through its sound. It's like the photography - deep, rich, detailed, multi-layered... It's also almost as important as the images in telling the story.

Now: it might tempting to say that this is a film without a plot - or without much of a plot. It's probably more accurate to say it has an unusual plot - that progression of souls (as it were) is a clear enough story line, though it is unconventional. The actual progression of scenes can also seem eventless - but isn't, not at all. It's striking how much does, in fact, happen. Something happens in every scene - we learn something about the village, the people and animals, and so on, in every scene. And in the first section, especially, every scene, almost every detail, builds a very careful, subtle, structure, that gets paid off at the end in spectacular fashion. You can say quite accurately, I think, that the entire first part of the film (following the old man and his goats, and his dog) is an elaborate gag worthy of Tati. It all builds to an Easter procession past the old man's house and goat pens - the dog interferes, is chased off by the romans - then tries to bully a lone altar boy, who tricks him by throwing a fake rock - leading the dog to find a real rock, which just happens to be holding back a parked truck. It is a cinematic tour de force - all played out in one shot (itself rather astonishing when you remember that it is an impeccably timed gag starring - and completely dependent on - a dog), and carefully using sound and sight to create the scene... That is delightful, but there is more - as we have seen all the steps taking place to create this situation. Like how the rock got there... and so on. And - probably why the dog is so aggressive - the old man is nowhere to be seen in this scene - he should have had his goats out on the hillside by this time - that he doesn't is significant...

Over all - to me, this film played like a mix of Tati and Olmi - slow, quiet, patient, but carefully constructed, impeccably made, funny little humanist adventures, that, small as their scale might seem to be, feel perfectly epic in their conception. A joy, from top to bottom.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day Random Music

Friday music day, and earth day - reminding me that somehow I'd missed the fact that there is a new album out from Earth, the band... strange. Well - we will make up for that oversight by seeing what Genius offers us, starting from Earth - it's taken a couple tries, since Apple (or my music collection) only seems to notice Boris, SunnO))) and the Melvins as sounding like Earth - Peace in Mississippi yields a bit of variety...

1. Earth - Peace in Mississippi
2. SunnO))) & Boris - Etna [that was a shock, huh?]
3.Melvins - NIght Goat
4. Comets on Fire - Sour Smoke
5. the Warlocks - Slowly Disappearing
6. Espers - Children of Stone
7. Blue Cheer - Just a Little Bit - hey - let's give Genius Blue Cheer for a while...
8. 13th floor Elevators - Kingdom of Heaven
9. MC5 - COme Together
10. Earth - Tallahassee - that worked out!

For video - since every day should be a Good Earth Day, here is a song from The Good Earth....

And - Earth - doing Engine of Ruin - I suppose, between Glen Mercer and Dylan Carlson, I could just call this telecaster day...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Certified Copy

April is turning out to be quite a month for movies. Everything I have seen has been worth seeing - and I have managed to attend three pretty much great films as well.

Note the verb. In fact one of the strong ties between these three great films is that it would be an injustice to any of them to say I "saw" them. I did see them of course, but I also listened to them - they all make extraordinary use of sound. I will come back to the other two (which would be Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [which I need to see again] and Le Quattro Volte) - I'll start here with some thoughts about Kiarostami's Certified Copy.

Brief run through what happens: it's basically a two-hander for Juliette Binoche and William Shimell (an opera singer in his first film) - he plays a writer, doing a book tour - she owns an antique shop - they go out for a Sunday drive in the Tuscan countryside, talk about art and her sister, see some sights, then, when they are mistaken for a married couple by a woman in a coffee shop, start acting the part. They visit a church specializing in weddings, a museum with a famous copy, they look at sculptures and art, try to eat at a restaurant, visit the hotel where they spent their wedding night, all the while growing into their roles as husband and wife, in a marriage on the rocks... Along the way they interact with a few other people - her son, the woman at the cafe, newlyweds, an old couple (Jean-Claude Carrierre and Agathe Natanson, as it happens) by a fountain, and various passersby - as well as a few people who don't appear, but have substance - her sister and brother in law, the people on the other end of their phones.... The story, then, is Strange - they begin as strangers, they are recast (as it were) by the observer as a married couple, and they start playing the parts - getting more and more engaged by the roles. Maybe they are play-acting with each other - maybe they were married all along - maybe reality changes - it probably doesn't matter. It seems to me, it is as if they are enacting the entire course of a relationship in one afternoon, from flirtation to courtship to marriage and the decay of the marriage. Maybe. Whatever is happening, the film is beautiful looking, gorgeous sounding, and all of it is very clever. Binoche is magnificent, her character a strange, rather off-putting person, but a great performance; Shimell doesn't quite seem up to her level - he comes off like Jeremy Irons in Inland Empire - though that may be the point. The character is pretty loathsome (though he is given some interesting critical positions - the arguments aren't really unbalanced), selfish, solipsistic, rude, though with an odd, sad, charm - gentle and cold... And everything is combined into a magnificent piece of filmmaking.

I've written before about how Kiarostami's films sound - and it's the sound that was most dazzling about Certified Copy. Nothing sounds like Kiarostami. That isn't to slight the visuals - this is a ravishing looking film, and visually clever to boot - but it sounds like nothing else. HIs films remind you how much we take sound for granted in films - and how hard it is to talk about sound. What does sound do? Most films use sound very conventionally - ambient sound to create a sense of realism - more precisely determined sound to emphasize actions - the music to shape our reactions - and dialogue... sound, in most films, guides us to the meaning of the film, shapes our attention and signals the importance of things on screen. Sound, most of the time, is used in a very similar way to analytical editing - it guides our attention, focuses us on certain elements of the film, shapes the emotional impact of the film.

Kiarostami doesn't use sound this way. He does a couple characteristic things, both different from conventional sound design. First - he immerses us in the sonic world of his films. His soundtracks are dense with ambient sound - voices and machines and natural sounds, tires and footsteps and wind and doors opening and floors creaking and so on, and snatches of diegetic music, TV and radio, etc. The sound immerses us in the world of the film, surrounds us - If most films use sound to guide your attention to the important elements of the image, Kiarostami uses sound to fill in the world outside the image. His sound designs are analogous to his cinematography - the deep focus, the open spaces, the somewhat disordered and random backgrounds. His films give the impression of being free, outside the direct focus of the story - the story takes place in a world that is going about its business regardless of the story. It's hard to describe properly - because it is combining two ideas. The story - in this case, the interactions between Binoche and Shimell - are carefully shot, framed, lit - they are edited precisely, taking full advantage of all the resources of art cinema (mirrors and frames in the frames and all the rest).... But behind the main actors, the rest of the city seems to be going about its business, just there. The sound design works to the same ends - the careful control of the dialogue, clear and distinct - but against the background sounds of the rest of the world (a city, a town, going about its business). Now: it can probably go without saying that these things are very highly controlled - you don't get a soundtrack as precise and rich as this without a lot of work and artifice. I imagine the same is true of the people wandering around in the back of the shots. (And it's certainly true of the compositions, the lighting, the reflections on the car windshield in the driving sequences, etc.) It reproduces at a technical level the general shape of his films - that carefully balanced blend of artifice and realism.

The other characteristic device Kiarostami uses here is a kind of split of the image and sound. There is always a careful interplay between the image and sound, and very often, Kiarostami breaks them apart. He does this in quite a few of his films - most radically in Shirin, but it happens repeatedly. In Certified Copy, that is how the film begins - the image (a table set up for an author talk, but with no people) is broken from the sound (an crowd, gathering, murmuring, somewhere behind the camera.) This changes - a man appears (a translator, introducing Shimell's character, James Miller, a writer, who is late) - then Miller - who begins by repeating (with a variation) the translator's excuse for his tardiness... Meaning already we have themes we will see again: characters repeating one another, even if they don't know what the other have said; a distinct image of an audience and spectacle - we hear the audience, and indeed seem to be part of the audience ourselves (the camera is in their place) - a relationship (between the camera and actors) that will be repeated throughout the film. (Several head on shots of the actors - interacting, diegetically, with other characters - but literally, interacting directly with the camera...

Okay... back to sound and image - and as that first sequence continues, Kiarostami continues to play games with the sound and image - we see the crowd rather than Shimell as he starts to speak; we see the antics of Binoche's character and her son, while the speech is going on, see them talking to one another and the translator, without hearing what they say; then she leaves - and Kiarostami gets in one more joke, when a cel phone goes off, and we pause a second, not knowing whose it is. Then - of course it is Shimell's, and he answers it, and we get half the conversation... And throughout the film, similar patterns return. Several cel phone conversations that we only hear half of, if that - though sometimes, the character on the phone (usually Binoche) gives a running commentary about the call... Their conversations sometimes run into other conversations, or people interact with one of them at a time, and fill in the other half of a conversation. The moment when they are mistaken for a couple plays like this - everyone seems to be getting about half of the conversation, and end up filling in the other half on their own - making jokes with languages - does Miller speak Italian? French? sometimes yes, sometimes no...

More than one scene plays as a tour de force - take the museum scene, with its copies and discussion of copies, its signs and glass, reflecting cases, the retellings of the story - Binoche tells Shimell about the piece (a 200 year old copy of an ancient Roman painting); then the tour guide tells the same story in Italian (and Binoche repeats it - inaudibly - for Shimell, who in this scene does not seem to speak Italian or French), then in French.... Or the scene by the fountain, especially the meeting with Carrierre and Natanson. Binoche and Shimell have been quarreling about the meaning and value of a statue - she has gone to solicit opinions of some of the others people in the courtyard, while he watches her in a series of mirrors. He sees Carrierre and Natanson - and when they first appear, he (Carrierre) is shouting - Natanson is behind him, apparently the target of his annoyance - then they turn, and we see he's talking to someone on the phone (she has the phone, he has the earpiece) - a lovely bit of misdirection. Binoche approaches them, talks to them - we don't hear their conversation (we see her in the mirrors) - then Shimell joins them. Binoche tries to get them to repeat what they told her about the statue - they won't quite do it, they even say she is the one who said what she wants them to say... It's all dazzling - the play of sound, the doubling of the pairs of characters (with the statue, of a man and woman, another in the series), the way what people say isn't quite original, people repeating each other, or putting words in each other's mouths - even the ubiquitous cel phones... words breaking free from their speakers, images and sounds divided, images and sounds multiplying, languages multiplying... a tour de force.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Music Day

I have been sick this week, which along with the Champion's League has kept me from finishing a couple pieces that I have, in fact, half written - it has been a nice couple weeks for new movies.... But here it is Friday again, and so time for another post that will write itself! Fire up the iPod and see what we get!

1. Pere Ubu - Something's Gotta Give [always a good sign when you start with Pere Ubu!]
2. Iron & Wine - Sunset Soon Forgotten
3. Fugazi - Song #1
4. Boredoms - Super Good
5. Bing Crosby - Away in a Manger [with the Norman Luboff choir!]
6. The Pop Group - Words Disobey Me
7. Sigur Rus - Fljotavik
8. The Chambers Brothers - In the Midnight Hour
9. Pere Ubu - Make Hay [I am almost cured already! 2 Pere Ubu songs on the random 10, including this, Tom Hermann at his bluesiest... where does the time go?]
10. Red Crayola - Place for Piano and Electric Bass Guitar [and Red Crayola! let's hope this is a sign.]

Video? Not the same song, but here's Red Crayola live (with George Hurley on drums, I believe!)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Civil War

Today, April 12, is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil, War, the firing on Fort Sumter. It was, as this post from the Britannica Blog points out, hardly the beginning of hostilities - the problem of slavery haunted the United States from its beginning - and more or less open warfare had been waged in the late 50s in Kansas - almost going national, when John Brown raided Harper's Ferry in 1859. But when the cannon balls started to fly in Charleston Harbor, there wasn't any going back....

The results of course - 4 years of warfare, 600,000 dead, massive destruction, and an imperfect but rather unmistakeable step closer to actual human decency. It is hard to say America saved its soul by fighting the Civil War - it took another 100 years for institutional racism to be eliminated (and even that, only in theory) - but it certainly helped. In some ways, it's taken even longer than that to acknowledge the basic facts of the war - the South managed to win the reconstruction, in the end - even 30 years ago, people who should know better could downplay the role of slavery in the war. Even now, there are plenty of folks who think they can pretend it was about state's rights or industrialization vs. agriculture or whatnot - a clash of cultures... It wasn't. It was Treason in defense of slavery. In the end, they didn't manage to destroy their country (in order to defend their right to own other human beings) - but they tried...

So to remember. And to remember what Confederacy stood for - slavery, racism, plutocracy, violence - and to note that, in the end, what we have is better than anything they could have given it.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Friday Random Music

Friday is here - and though I continue to fail to get anything else written (perhaps this time in utter despair at the misfortunes of the local 9 - though to those inclined too much to pessimism, let me commend the story of the 2001 Oakland A's, of the 2-10 start and the 102-60 finish - similar hype, similar beginnings...) - I can at least put together a music post in 15 minutes to - do something....

Here goes:

1. Frank Sinatra - My Funny Valentine (live in Paris)
2. Dungen - En Gang I Ar Kom Det En Tar
3. PJ Harvey - I Think I'm a Mother
4. Richard Thompson - Mr. Stupid
5. Earth - Rise to Glory
6. Buzzcocks - Promises
7. Isley Brothers - Footsteps in the Dark
8. Can - Spoon
9. Romeo Void - A GIrl in Trouble
10. Pere Ubu - Codex (Live - Mayo Thompson era)

Now - while I can't find anything better on the video front - here is the song, at least - The Isley Brothers...

and I probably post this every 6 months or so, but you can't have too much Can - this is Spoon:

Friday, April 01, 2011

Musical Foolishness

In honor of April Fools day (the weather is certainly foolish enough...) - let's run genius, starting with Frank Zappa's Dancin' Fool:

Starting point: Frank Zappa - Dancin' Fool

1.Devo - Jocko Homo
2. Captain Beefheart - ZIgzag Wanderer
3. Warren Zevon - Accidentally like a Martyr
4. Talking Heads - Crosseyed and Painless
5. Tom Waits - Singapore
6. Ian Dury & the Blockheads - Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3
7. Jane's Addiction - Ted Just Admit It
8. Nick Cave & Bad Seeds _ Hold on To Yourself
9. George Harrison - Apple Scruffs
10. The Mars Volta - Metatron

Here's Frank live:

And somehow, Ian Dury seems appropriate - since live footage of the song that came up seems rare - here's Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick...

Though this - a Bollywood number cut to Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 - is too good to miss.